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My Philanthropic Journey: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Embrace Failure

Strategic Philanthropy | Civil Society | Dec 17, 2020

Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Vidya Shah, Chairperson & CEO, EdelGive Foundation at EDGE 2020


0:00:00.0 Vidya: Thank you Nagma, and welcome again dear friends to EDGE 2020. I’m really excited to have this conversation this evening with Rohini Nilekani, who which I think is an apt finale to EDGE 2020. I read somewhere what I think is an apt descriptor of Rohini, and I quote, “Rohini has always been an activist. She’s held flags at a protest, marched for causes, and even licked envelopes to send petition letters.” Today, her activism continues to find new expressions as she engages with various organizations that are strengthening and transforming the social fabric of India. Whilst her personal journey in philanthropy over the last 20 years plus is in itself a fascinating story, there are a few things about her that I find not only highly impressive, but also very endearing. First, the first time I met her was about 10 years ago in their official bungalow in Delhi, where Nandan and she lived when he was Chairman of UIDAI. She was very gracious. She asked me a lot of questions about what we were doing at EdelGive. I came away with a strong sense that her razor-sharp intellect doesn’t suffer fools easily. Over the next few years, I would meet her on and off at various events and that impression solidified. If you want to engage with her, you’d better do your homework.

0:01:41.6 Vidya: Second, she plays to her strengths with full understanding and awareness. She’s an author, an ex-journalist, she writes regularly and uses her pen very effectively to express what concerns her foremost. Her latest book, The Hungry Little Monster, I have a little book here to show you, which I’ve bought for my grandniece, reflects her wish to see every child with a book. The latest book in the Sringeri Srinivas series for two to five-year-olds has the protagonist adopting a resolution during COVID. Rohini said that the lockdown period has been the most fertile period to think about life and the issues we are surrounded by. Finally, she’s an unconventional, unusual thinker. She acts on her convictions. She’s able to triangulate concepts and data in a highly [0:02:39.1] ____ way. And I think her articulation of samaaj, bazaar, sarkaar and societal platforms is a deceptively simple way of frameworking an approach, a way of thinking, and most hopefully, of solving the problems that plague humanity today. Welcome, Rohini, and thank you so much for joining us today.

0:03:02.0 Rohini Nilekani: Thank you so much, Vidya, my friend, and also my inspiration. Thank you for so many kind words. I hope I get a chance to say about you in another forum… Likewise, I feel very inspired by your leadership for the sector, how very quickly you seized opportunity with both hands. So thank you for what you do.

0:03:21.5 Vidya: Thanks, Rohini. So let me start by asking you that unlike conventional wisdom in philanthropy, your work actually shows a deep focus in many disparate spaces. We have Pratham, which is a non-profit publisher of affordable and good quality children’s books, we have Arghyam, which supports organizations in groundwater and sanitation, and EkStep, a societal platform to provide digital infrastructure for early learning. But you have other initiatives as well in social justice, governance, independent media and the arts. So how would you react to a comment that your philanthropy lacks coherence, or that you’re doing too many things?

0:04:03.3 RN: Yeah. No, I think that’s a fair question to ask because it will appear like I’m doing so many different things, and maybe do it… Like Jack of all trades and not a master [chuckle] of a single one, so I think it’s a fair question to ask. But let me try to put it in perspective, because no matter whether we are working in Arghyam on water, we are working in EkStep on education, if we are looking for ways to collaborate on better access to justice, or we are working on a portfolio called Active Citizenship, which I have, or a portfolio on young men and boys, right? They all look like different things… Or environment, I have a huge portfolio on environmental issues. While they all look like different things, actually to my mind and heart, they’re the same thing, which is as you talked of samaaj, bazaar, and sarkaar, in that continuum, as I’ve said many times, I think making samaaj or society very strong, to solve its problems on its own with collaborated, obviously with collaboration, remains that single driving spirit behind my philanthropy and my other work as well.

0:05:09.0 RN: So whether it is in any of these fields, what we are looking for is ideas, individuals, institutions that have the integrity, the commitment, the passion to solve something that they care about. And these are all societal issues, right? So what’s common is they’re all societal issues, that they’re all… Through my philanthropy, I’m supporting the strengthening of communities and samaaj to respond to problems, and to become part of solutions, to see themselves as actual active part of the solution. So I don’t come from any very fixed ideology other than this, if you call this an ideology, and that’s why, because India has such a thriving civil sector, I’m able to work across all these areas. It’s not like we are physically going and doing the work, right? As philanthropists, we’re supporting other people doing the work. And luckily there are amazing organizations in this country, some of whom are in this platform today, so I’m able to support them with this common single driving notion.

0:06:10.7 Vidya: Excellent. So, we’re also seeing with new philanthropy, especially big philanthropy, we’re seeing this trend towards self-implementation.

0:06:21.6 RN: Yes.

0:06:22.0 Vidya: So what do you think this is? Do you worry that this is shrinking the space for civil society organizations or there’ll be more, God forbid, corporatization of the sector?

0:06:34.3 RN: Yeah, no, you’ve raised a very important point. It is a concern because that… It’s not just… So many, so many, so many things are now acting on civil society, right? Pressures of fundraising, pressures of all kinds of reforms that the government is undertaking that are worrying the sector a lot right now. And on top of that, because of the CSR law or because of various I think diversions in ideological belief, many rich philanthropists have undertaken to implement what they want to do through their own, inside their own gate, hiring their own people, doing their own things. They may be collaborating with government, but they may not necessarily collaborate with existing civil society institutions.

0:07:23.6 RN: And I think that is something to worry about because, after all, these civil society organizations have their feet very firmly on the ground. They’ve done work for decades, they understand how problems evolve, and sometimes a new solution gives rise to a new problem. So, unless you have contextual understanding, you can’t really grapple with the inequities and all kinds of things that common people have to face. So, I would say, yes, it is worrisome, but say, for example, we ourselves at EkStep are rolling out with the government a huge platform. We have made sure to include many civil society organizations in it. So, I would say to philanthropists, even if you implement within your own organization, make sure to find those people who are already doing good work. And I think many of them do, but you’re right to worry about the future of civil society in general.

0:08:19.1 Vidya: Yeah, actually a lot of your work when it comes to samaaj, bazaar, sarkaar, it’s a very unique and it’s a very forceful articulation of the balance we need, you know, if we want to evolve and sustain as a race. And this balance is clearly out of kilter.

0:08:38.6 RN: Yeah.

0:08:39.3 Vidya: In some cases, sarkaar is obviously all-powerful and worse, in some bazaar and sarkaar work in tandem. So, how do we rejuvenate samaaj? As civil people who are actors and people interested in civil society and as in ordinary citizens, what are some of the things we can do?

0:09:00.5 RN: Yeah. So, yeah, I think a concern that I deeply have which underwrites a lot of my philanthropy, as I said, is how do we make society strong enough, the institutions of society strong enough, its leadership, its moral base strong enough that we can confidently hold markets and the state accountable to the common public interest, right? That is the struggle. And how do we also make sure… Society is not homogenous. Especially in India nothing is homogenous. [chuckle] So, even making sure that the societal tensions don’t spill over.

0:09:35.3 RN: So, for that, I think first thing is we need to go back to basics. And all of us, and we must begin with young people having these conversations, in this 21st century, how do we see ourselves as citizens first? How do we see ourselves not as consumers? Today it is so easy to wake up in the morning itself as a consumer, you know, the first cup of tea you have and until you go to bed, something is there which ties you to the market very closely, especially digitally. How do you not see yourself just as a subject of the state? Today, states are so powerful. From morning to night, you’re also ruled by a million laws, some of it you don’t even know, right?

0:10:15.7 Vidya: Yeah, yeah.

0:10:16.6 RN: So, how do we grab back for ourselves first? The idea I am a citizen first, and I must work to make my society, whether it’s just my building, my house, my neighborhood, and then my country and everything else, much better to live in for me and everyone else? So, just that flip from realizing that you’re not a subject, you’re not a consumer, you are a citizen, a human being first and a citizen. So, those layers have to be understood and then it becomes much easier to do work which strengthens the samaaj aspect of your life. That’s what I feel.

0:10:57.4 Vidya: Yeah. So, you know that we support the EdelGive Hurun philanthropy list. And we find that there is a great reluctance or, if I were to be kind, a shyness about any conversation as to what the wealthy are doing for the public good.

0:11:15.6 RN: Yeah.

0:11:16.1 Vidya: Do you believe that people need to use their circle of influence? You spoke about ordinary citizens even just in their neighborhood, but even the rich and the highly wealthy, how can they use their circle of, or should they be using their circle of influence to talk about how wealth should actually be used to help society?

0:11:36.7 RN: Yeah, I think we should be quite clear that society… Wealth creation is a good thing because that’s how you bring more and more people into prosperity. So, wealth creation is a good thing, which is why societies allow it, which is why the state encourages it. And… But wealth must be used and must be seen to be beneficial for society. If only a few private people are benefiting from wealth creation, only a few, and masses of people are not seeing the benefit of that wealth creation, then clearly something is very seriously wrong. I mean, it’s just wrong because why should some people get, take, suck up all the value of the market system while leaving so many people in the cold?

0:12:26.8 RN: So, there is, I believe, a lot of churn going on right now. And these last 20 years, Vidya, a lot of the economic papers around the world have celebrated billionaires, celebrated wealth, but I think we are seeing a tipping point now. I think people have understood that while wealth creation is good, accumulation of so much wealth in so few private hands, when it is not visibly being deployed for societal interests, people are beginning to wake up to the problems that that poses. And I think today all wealthy people and super wealthy people need to reflect a little more how can we make this fantastic opportunity that we have had much more useful to far more people and do it visibly? I think the time to be shy about it is over. We need to signal very clearly that we mean to use our wealth for… And it’s… I’m fine. I’m not dictating who should do what and nor should the government. But whatever area you like, do more, do it visibly and a little more publicly. Acknowledge more publicly what you are doing. We need that signalling very badly right now. So that’s what I believe.

0:13:46.2 Vidya: Yeah, and it’s in this context that I hear a lot, saying that there are many barriers to really taking the first step in philanthropy. And in that connection, I remember a very close friend of mine, saying Rohini that know that stayed, it says, “Don’t judge the giving. Judge the not giving.” So what would you say and especially in the context of people saying that these, there are many barriers to philanthropy. And if I were to say there aren’t any really because we’re talking about fairly wealthy people who’ve become, clearly who’ve become rich through the application of mind, one presumes. So the only barrier, if I’m kind is, again, procrastination or an ego and wanting to do it just right. So how does just one overcome this first step and how… For example, how did you overcome that? Or how did you make that first step, rather?

0:14:40.1 RN: Yeah, no, while… I think we shouldn’t judge either giving or non-giving because that takes us down a bad path, but I would say that some people believe genuinely, and because I’m a bit of a nag, so I ask everybody what they’re doing. [chuckle]

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0:15:00.2 RN: Some of them genuinely tell me, “But Rohini, you do what you’re doing, okay. But I believe that my business itself is my giving in the sense in my… Through my business, I’m creating societal value.” That’s what they genuinely believe. Okay? And I think people, in India especially, give into community and family, and they don’t… That doesn’t really count in the public as philanthropy, so there we have a bit of a gap of understanding. But somehow I think the task before civil society and the media and all of us who care about such issues is to make people see that even just business is not enough. Because that old idea of the business of business is business, that’s over, right? We have understood the interconnections so much better, especially this 2020, that I think for more business people and wealthy people to start giving forward into areas that they don’t directly get benefit from. It’s a very critical way forward, actually even for themselves, because you and I know what kind of satisfaction and joy and discovery we get from doing this work. So I think it is up to us also to tell these stories a little better than we are doing right now, to draw in more people into this adventure. So there’s work ahead on all sides.

0:16:27.8 Vidya: I have also seen that sometimes people… And it’s kind of something that you also just said. People in business who venture into philanthropy sometimes just use only head or sometimes I’ve seen there’s so much heart because they’re impressionable about a universe that’s generally alien to them. So am I being unkind when I say this?

0:16:49.6 RN: You’re not unkind. I don’t think you’re capable of it, but you can try. Go ahead.

0:16:57.4 Vidya: No, because I do feel that either it’s too much of a framework, too much analysis, or it’s a bleeding-heart syndrome, so a balance between this analysis, everything is measurement and some of it… Or everything is just heart.

0:17:17.4 RN: Yes. So, luckily, exactly because of conversations like we are having now and there have been so many more of them in the last 20 years, so people are beginning to join head and heart and pocket. They’re beginning to. But it is true that people start either from the heart or from the head, and strangely the journey from the heart to the head, which is only this much, actually is a very long and deep journey. Either you start from here to here or from here to here. So it’s a hard journey. It’s an evolution. It’s a learning path, and people who start from here quickly realize that they need a bit of this, and people who start from here realize, “Oops, we need to think this through much more for systemic change.” So they get there eventually, and again, we must make sure those of us who are so passionate about this sector, how do we keep more resources out there so that people can converge their head and heart and not forget about their pockets as well. Open your head, your heart and your pocket has to be more open.


0:18:20.0 Vidya: Your work and Nandan’s work has illustrated that one can not only… One not only can, but must work with government. And so what is your advice to new philanthropists as they design their philanthropy?

0:18:38.9 RN: Yeah, so while everyone, many more people have understood that obviously they have to work with government, the biggest player of all. You have to work with government when you can, and government can be your local panchayat. It can be your ward councillor, your ward. Government doesn’t mean Prime Minister’s Office. Government means your panchayat, your ward committee, your mohalla committee. It could be any form of the state. It could be the parastate organization. So first of all, we need to understand what we mean by government. Everything from your most local to the union government’s ministries. Everywhere there are opportunities to engage because it will help to expand your own work, whatever you all are doing. And if you’re doing new philanthropy, begin small. Begin small or hitch your wagon to another organization that is working with government.

0:19:32.0 RN: You will learn very fast from that. So that’s what I tell people who ask me, “How can I start working with government?” There will always be opportunities. Today, the smallest thing, okay, even if you go to your councillor and say, “I want to give to one school. I want to give books or uniforms,” or it could be anything, food. It could be anything, but that is also called working with the state and the political system, right? Begin small, you will quickly understand how that will help you to scale up your work. So there are many opportunities right now.

0:20:05.9 Vidya: I wanted to speak a little bit about women in philanthropy. So when I started EdelGive Foundation, for the longest time, I did not tell anyone that I was married to Rasesh, I was afraid of being judged. Even though I have my own equity in Edelweiss out of my own earnings. So what is your advice to women and families who want to make a meaningful contribution to philanthropy?

0:20:31.7 RN: Yeah. No, I agree, because women… I too had to battle for my identity because Nandan’s is a large space. And for me to work, to show that my approach is complementary and different to his, I had to work very hard for that over several several years. I got lucky, like you, we had… I was able to put my own money into Infosys and became independently wealthy. I didn’t know I would but I did. So in that sense, I have much more control over my own finances. Not all women necessarily have that but I would say it is as important a conversation as any in the family. And for families to understand that if women… Women can use their talents, not only in their jobs and their home life and managing their families, also to manage… To improve their community, that is as much a contribution to the family as anything else. And so women should…

0:21:39.9 RN: I have been urging women to take up confidently, start as small as you feel comfortable with, but do not be afraid to make the demand on that money to give forward, because it’s another way to contribute to family, because what values do we want to instill in the next generation? It is about being part of an interconnected society that you are able to give forward what you receive. So certainly women should not worry about whether the money is exactly in their name, they should have that family conversation and experiment with small amounts of giving, their family will learn to support them. That’s one thing, and about your particular case, I can understand why you said at first you were hesitant, but now you can occupy that space boldly and say, “Yes, Rasesh is my husband.” It works that way too.

0:22:35.9 Vidya: Yeah. You’ve also said that Indian philanthropy needs to be more audacious. Indian philanthropy is not edgy enough, we’re not taking enough risks, we’re not battling with the bigger problems. Mostly like, for example, some of the work you are doing around environment and climate change. So how can Indian philanthropy look out 10 years and ask the right questions about what they should be doing more audaciously?

0:23:05.2 RN: Yeah. So, I think philanthropists who are business people, who have to constantly work with government, are very nervous, in any government, to take on risky things which the government might think are anti-government. Even though they may not be, okay, that’s important. They may not be anti-government. If something is pro-people, it’s not necessarily anti-government, it can’t be. Everything has to be pro-people. We have to be very careful in our philanthropy. It must be pro-people or pro-ecosystems that also benefit people. And I think Indian philanthropy does need to take a very hard look at what is actually happening on the ground, okay? Why are people suffering? With climate change, who’s going to suffer? You and I will escape to the hills or wherever we have to escape to. Who is going to suffer? Those who live at the edge of livelihood and land, livelihood and water, those kind of places. And now, if we don’t protect our country and its geography against all those shocks that are on their way, and the shocks will come to those people, we should not be afraid because, actually, even businesses will not thrive when you have not understood that the economy is as they say, a wholly owned subsidiary of the ecology.

0:24:24.8 RN: If you don’t quickly understand that, then you’ll be shying away from really hard questions on pollution, on water sustainability, on land issues, on agriculture and so many things. So I think without going out there and… It’s not even about being anti-government at all, it’s about being pro-people and pro-country, okay? And pro the environment for our country. We can afford to take more of risks, whether it is access to justice. You and I have easy access to lawyers and courts, how many people don’t? How many people are languishing in our prisons without trial? We think it doesn’t affect us but actually those threads are getting tighter and tighter woven. We need to see those connections. When we see a spider, sometimes from afar, we can barely see the web threads. You have to go a little closer and observe to see just how intricately it is done. It is like that with issues of society. We need to go closer to the well and then we realize what we need to do in our philanthropy. That’s what I think.

0:25:30.8 Vidya: Yeah. So, you’ve done a lot of work on thinking about civil society, and a lot of us also, as a group, we’ve had our focus on building, capacity building, building organizations, and what I call basic hygiene for non-profits, some things that they must have in place if you’re thinking about growth and scale. But if you see, there has been a big challenge in how funding for non-profits has evolved in the last 70 odd years. Initially there was… There’s been some disruption because they started… Most NGOs focused on funding from multi-lats, which was highly project-based and it was very vendor-subcontractor kind. Then there was this whole thing around personal philanthropy, more UH&Is and H&Is. Then, of course, there’s been CSR funding, so they’ve also had to adapt to these new demands by funders, but what is it they intrinsically must do to build their skill and resilience, or to avoid constant disruption in how they work?

0:26:42.5 RN: No, I think that’s a very good question, and I know you focus a lot on capacity building, and I remember you telling me that in these COVID times, you realized that people needed to get more digital, and how you help people to become more digital with devices and training. I thought that was fantastic, and it’s a very important question, how does civil society in India become much more resilient? Whether it comes to their organization structures, the capacity to respond to emerging problems quickly and the capacity to not be dependent on a few funding waves. Okay? I think three or four things, one is, we need to build out the capacity building as a sector in philanthropy and civil society. We need to give much more training and tools and resources to civil society organizations, because without us supporting that financially, how are they going to do it? So that you are very interested in, and we are all trying to work on that. But secondly, I think civil society also in India needs to wake up to the fact that for many, many years, they were very comfortable with foreign and multi-lat organizations funding them, and they did not really spend enough time and energy to bridge divides between them and India’s funders, not told their story in a way that was acceptable to funder.

0:28:04.7 RN: You just assume that people won’t fund you, but tell your stories, get people to understand. So there’s a lot of work that civil society needs to do to reach out to Indians who are becoming wealthier or are already wealthy. And of course, thirdly, retail fundraising. You have seen with Gandhi, we were talking about this earlier, how Indians have responded with their time, their heart and their money to neighbors and strangers, both. How do Indian civil society organizations tap better into that energy? Because while I think we do need to professionalize civil society, what is at the core of this? It is the volunteer energy that people have in them. The desire to do good for its own sake, without transactional results. That volunteer energy which Gandhi Ji used to tap so brilliantly, right? And so many others did too. That’s what we need to see coming up again, so civil society has to learn to tap that because it exists, that’s the real riches of India, right?

0:29:10.0 Vidya: Yes.

0:29:10.0 RN: And I’m not simply saying that.

0:29:13.1 Vidya: Yeah.

0:29:13.1 RN: So that’s what we need to encourage.

0:29:14.6 Vidya: Yeah, I’d like to… I think we just have a few minutes, but I’d love to touch about the societal platforms work that you are doing. And it’s somewhere I read you describing it and I really loved it, therefore I’m sort of quoting you. You said that you’re using technology to design for inclusion, access choice, agency and diversity with that scale and impact, and that’s such a beautiful articulation of what a society platform can do. You said it’s unified but not uniform, tech enabled but not but not tech led. So how optimistic are you? Because you’ve done so much work on this about the potential impact of societal platforms the way you’re seeing it around inclusion, access choice, agency, diversity.

0:30:06.9 RN: So you know these last few years our teams are at EkStep and at the societal platform, we’ve been thinking deep, hard and long on this, and we’ve looked at similar work from around the world. And when it comes to technology, I’m not at all a techie, and I think I’ve learned however, that just like farmers use the plough, that’s also technology. Gandhi used the charkha that’s also technology. We moved from bullock carts to cars that’s also technology. Everything is technology, but information technology particularly is very double-edged and we know it can be used for good and bad. So it amplifies intent, so I think working on the intent and declaring the intent is very important, and constantly making sure by mistake your technology is not led you away from your intent. So… But technology is becoming more and more complex. So what I feel is, I go back to my same principle, we have to strengthen society to understand how technology should work for society, and society should not have to work for technology. We can’t become the product as they say right? So we have no choice but to again, as Samaaj take back technology to serve society. It can’t be serving corporations and the state alone, it has to serve us.

0:31:24.9 RN: That’s why designing the Societal Platform thinking is about that. If we want everyone to have education, everyone to have healthcare, everyone to have access to justice or water or whatever it is. How can we use the power of all these emerging technologies to do that instead of to capture value at one end of the spectrum? It’s not easy, but if we don’t declare this publicly and work towards it publicly and create open public digital goods so that everyone can be a part of taking back technology for society, I don’t see how else we can do it. Which is why very quickly I urge always civil society organizations have to come whether they like it or not into the digital age, because the new societal problems are going to be digital age problems. And we need a healthy digital civil society to tackle digital age issues on digital platform, so they have to get tech savvy and we have to help them to get to there as exactly you are doing. So these are complex things, but they can be made simpler with the goal that technology must enable, society must enable inclusion, choice, access, agency, and therefore every… We have to design for it, it won’t happen automatically.

0:32:41.7 RN: How do we design for more participation, how do we design for more contextual evolving? It’s possible, I have learned that I’m not at all a techie, I can’t write code. But when our tech teams get together, these are the questions we make sure are on the table when they are designing their technology. I think everyone can do it. We have to participate in this thing because this is the biggest, one of the biggest threats in the century right?

0:33:09.0 Vidya: Yeah, definitely.

0:33:09.3 RN: That we may get all lost, you read… [0:33:12.7] ____ And you read all these other comments and say, “Good god, no, no! We have to take it back.”

0:33:17.0 Vidya: Yes, yes. On that lovely, lovely note, Rohini thank you so much for being with us today. It’s been fascinating as always. And again, a heartfelt thanks to you for joining [0:33:31.0] ____.

0:33:31.2 RN: Thank you to you for this opportunity.

0:33:32.3 Vidya: Thank you so much.

0:33:32.7 RN: Thank you for what you do, thank you for this, for these gatherings and these repeated gatherings you have. They’re very important for the sector, so I thank you. Everyone be safe, this year is coming to an end. Next year will continue a little, but we’re coming to an end of a really horrible period. And we all pulled through it together so we can celebrate us. Thank you [0:33:52.8] ____.

0:33:55.5 Vidya: Yes [chuckle] Thank you so very much. Okay, over to you, Nagma, thank you so much for this conversation.

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